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Sen. Ron Johnson losing in direct donations, but dominating outside spending over challenger, Lt. Gov. Barnes



FILE - (LEFT) US Sen. Ron Johnson; (RIGHT) Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. The two are locked in a race for Wisconsin's US Senate seat on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is winning the direct fundraising battle with incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission.

Johnson’s allies, however, have overwhelmed the Democrat with independent spending in the race.

Peter Cameron is managing editor of The Badger Project, a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit based in Madison. — This story was funded in part by a grant from the La Crosse Community Foundation.

Barnes’ campaign has raised at least $35 million from direct donations, compared to about $32 million for Johnson.

Outside groups allied with Johnson have spent more than $76 million attacking Barnes and supporting Johnson, while outside groups allied with Barnes have spent about $49 million attacking Johnson and supporting Barnes, according to the Open Secrets database, which collects campaign finance data.

By law, candidates for federal office are limited in what they can raise from donors. A person can give $2,900 per election, for a total of $5,800 per election cycle, to a candidate. A political action committee can give $5,000 and $10,000.

But independent groups, some of which are called Super PACs, can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money running advertising promoting or trashing candidates.

This fact comes from the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which ruled that political groups could raise and spend unlimited amounts to use in political messaging as long as they didn’t coordinate with political campaigns.

Barnes has slightly outraised Johnson probably because the Republican incumbent was assured of vast independent expenditures, said Ed Miller, a political science professor emeritus at UW-Stevens Point.

“Johnson himself does not have a great reputation in Congress, making it more difficult to raise money,” Miller said. “For an incumbent, he should have outraised Barnes. Much of Johnson’s independent expenditures were more to gain Republican control of the Senate than to keep Johnson there.”

Neither campaign responded to multiple requests for comment, but both candidates have said plenty about the outside spending on Twitter.

“The outside spending in this race is obscene,” Barnes tweeted in September. “ And every day, lies are spread to hold onto this seat. But when we come together, we win, and it’s true that every $ counts.”

“Millions are being poured into Wisconsin by Dark Money groups,” Johnson tweeted in June. “I need strong grassroots support to fight back.”

Though Johnson did not respond to requests for comment from The Badger Project for this story, he did respond last month when asked to comment on a story regarding his vote against a bill that would have mandated more public disclosure in campaign spending.

“My opponent is receiving funds from all sorts of dark money, outside groups,” he said in an emailed statement. “Democrats only have a problem with money in politics when it’s coming from folks who oppose them.”

Outside groups have spent about $53 million running attack ads on Barnes, compared to about $38 million attacking Johnson, according to Open Secrets. They have spent about $12 million running ads supporting Barnes, and about $24 million supporting Johnson.

Wisconsin Truth PAC has spent nearly $20 million attacking Barnes and $9 million supporting Johnson, according to campaign finance data collected by Open Secrets. The group is funded by millions from billionaire rightwing megadonors Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply Co in the Beloit area, and Elizabeth Uihlein of ULINE, who splits time between her homes in Illinois and Wisconsin. Joe Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and is the patriarch of the family who owns the Chicago Cubs, also donated $1 million to this group.

The Republican Senate Leadership Fund has spent $26 million attacking Barnes. The One Nation dark money group, connected to Karl Rove, has given tens of millions to this PAC, which is attacking Democratic candidates for senate. Miriam Adelson, billionaire widow of Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, has also given the group at least $10 million. And Kenneth Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel, a global hedge fund, has given the group at least $20 million.

The Democratic Senate Majority Fund has spent $24 million attacking Johnson and about $500,000 supporting Barnes. The group is spending tens of millions attacking Republican candidates for Senate. Majority Forward, a dark money group supporting Democrats, has funneled tens of millions into this fund. The Chicago-based Fred Eychaner, who founded the newspaper company Newsweb, has also given the fund at least $16 million.

The Americans for Prosperity Action Campaign, part of the Koch Brothers’ network, has spent $1.5 million attacking Barnes and nearly $10 million supporting Johnson.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent more than $4 million attacking Johnson.

Miller noted the obvious: the race is very expensive.

“Often independent groups focus on negative ads while the candidate’s organization concentrates on positive ads,” Miller said. “The quantity of negative ads from the Johnson-affiliated groups resulted in Johnson taking the lead in the polls. Now with more Barnes ads, polls are showing a closer race.”

Peter Cameron is the managing editor of The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture in Wisconsin which investigates our public officials and other important state issues.

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